This is another historical piece lifted from the In Defence of Youth Work [IDYW] archives that may be of some passing interest.
This post contains an exchange between myself and Ravi Chandirimani, then the editor of CYPN. It dates from May 2009. He advised those involved in IDYW to embrace pragmatism. Being pragmatic has certainly done him no harm. He sits today on the Mark Allen Board of Directors. Fair enough. Does the success of his individual pragmatism expose the naive preciousness of the collective, that was the IDYW? Or, ironically, given the failure of IDYW to organise a successful resistance to the behavioural capture of youth work, what has been the price of the victory of Ravi’s pragmatic advice?
The links in the following paragraph do not work. Evidently, CYPN and its owners, the market-leading brand, Mark Allen Holdings don’t do history.
The debate about youth work values and core principles continues on the pages of Children and Young People Now In the article ‘Are government policies chipping away at youth work values?’ Janaki Mahadevan collects together the views of ‘a panel of experts’. Now being dubbed an expert does my head in, but we’ll leave this contemporary obsession with experts to another day. Whilst in a related Opinion piece ‘Youth Work must avoid isolationism’ Ravi Chandiramani advises us ‘to be pragmatic, not precious’.
His argument unfolds as follows:
Youth work must avoid isolationism
De Montfort University’s inquiry on the impact of government policies on youth work has added to the sense of unease expressed in Tony Taylor’s open letter, In Defence of Youth Work, that its core principles are under threat.
This week we ask a number of experts to evaluate these concerns.
The anxieties themselves derive partly from the fact that the more eye-catching, headline-grabbing – and crucially, properly funded – initiatives that involve youth workers target certain groups of young people deemed to be “troubled”, “vulnerable”, “at risk” or whatever administrative label is the flavour of the month. Our feature this week on non-negotiable support offers one such example of these initiatives. Such targeted youth support defies youth work’s cherished value that the relationship between a young person and youth worker is voluntary. It may not be youth work in its purest form, granted, but targeted support calls on a number of youth work skills to build relationships with young people.
The anxieties are fuelled also by requirements for youth work nowadays to demonstrate accredited outcomes and the feeling that these are dictating practice. However, as London Youth’s Nick Wilkie states, it is entirely reasonable to assess youth work’s impact on young lives, particularly since cuts in public spending are forcing all children’s and youth services to prove their benefit.
What we have at the moment is a bit of a stand-off between policymakers and some sections of the youth work community. From the government, amid initiative after initiative targeting the country’s problematic youth, what is missing is a clear articulation of support for youth work in its purest sense: as voluntary, informal, providing young people with someone to talk to, somewhere to socialise, and activities that boost young people’s confidence.
That said, youth workers have to accept reality. Other professions in the children’s sector – teachers and social workers among them – have had to adapt beyond their core skills base to ensure the young get the services and support they need. At a time when youth workers are being given the opportunity to play a more central role through the youth professional status, some risk becoming isolationist, and marginalising themselves from the Every Child Matters agenda, which has plenty to commend it. They should defend their turf, by all means, but now is a good time to be pragmatic, not precious.
I have responded in the following vein:
This is a curious piece. In order to make your case you are forced to create a Strawperson: a precious youth worker refusing to face reality, devoid of pragmatic intuition, marching off into splendid isolation. Now the DMU Inquiry is not the work of such a fictional character. Bernard Davies and Brian Merton have laboured seriously for decades in both a pragmatic and principled way in support of process-led, young person-centred voluntary youth work practice. If there is a stand-off between policymakers and the likes of Bernard and Brian, it is a situation of the policymakers’ making. It is down to the bureaucracy’s failure to enter into an authentic dialogue with the folk who understand and do the job. Of course, I accept that I might be identified as an out-of-touch maverick. However, the contradiction is that the Open Letter is not at all a personal statement. It is an effort to distil the mood and thinking of a diversity of practitioners with whom I have been closely involved in recent years. Within the missive, we use the idea of ‘democratic and emancipatory’ youth work to describe the form of youth work we favour and wish to defend. Myself, unlike some of my closest friends, I have no desire to claim that what is going on under New Labour is not Youth Work. My problem is that it is a form of Youth Work that is imposed, prescriptive and normative, which doesn’t mean that the people doing it are evil and nasty. It does mean that those, going along with its agenda, have accepted that the purpose of Youth Work is control and conformity.
And it is the question of purpose which is at the heart of the resurgent debate about Youth Work. It has little to do with your confusing reference to skills. If teachers and social workers have ‘adapted beyond their core skills base’, it is not so that they can become better at working with their students and clients, but rather that they become better at form-filling and the like. What has been altered is the focus of education and social work: away from educating a child for life towards a narrow vocationalism, away from social welfare to social punishment. Increasingly within these professions, people are protesting that enough is enough. And so it is within Youth Work. Our desire is to contest the meaning imposed on our engagement with young people.
I will outstay my welcome if I respond properly to the mythical idea that the quantitative amassing of accredited outcomes gives some ground-breaking insight into the impact of youth work on young people or that it provides some ‘robust’ defence against public spending cuts. So let me close on the question of pragmatism, which has never been in short supply within Youth Work. In my own case, you don’t hold down jobs in senior management in Youth Work for 20 years without sadly having to be pragmatic. But it’s one thing being pragmatic as a necessity in specific circumstances, it is quite another to make of pragmatism a virtue, or even a philosophy. For pragmatism suffers at heart from a lack of vision and imagination.
Ravi, I think your advice is wide of the historical mark. With politicians and policymakers on the run, spewing in their breathlessness chunks of rhetoric about democracy, the devolution of power and the crisis of the body politic, our arguments about the need for an open, democratic and pluralist youth work will not isolate or marginalise us. More and more folk are saying similar things about their particular turf in all parts of the State and civil society. Now is a precious time, not to be wasted, to be principled and imaginative, not passively pragmatic.
As ever your criticisms and comments are welcomed. Are we in danger of being isolated?